Death row inmate John C. Abel insists he didn't kill a 26-year-old… (Central Justice Center )
SAN QUENTIN — John C. Abel is the first to admit he's led a crook's life.
He robbed banks and convenience stores, grocery marts and check-cashing joints. He terrified people with Uzi-style Mac 11s and .22-caliber handguns, Browning pistols and Dirty Harry-style Magnums. His stickup jag dated to the 1960s and sliced through the country from Massachusetts to California.
"Even a couple islands up there by Seattle," he adds, in the genial voice of an old ballplayer reminiscing about a far-traveling career.
Fifteen years ago, a jury concluded he deserved to die for killing a man outside a Tustin bank. Now 68, gray-bearded and diabetic, he waits in his cell on San Quentin's death row and insists he doesn't belong there.
"I'm the furthest thing from John Q. Citizen, but it bothers me to be called a killer," says Abel, chewing a Hershey bar in one of the visiting room's mesh cages.
He is accustomed to lockup — he has spent most of his life in cells — but describes death row as a particularly lonely place of loathsome company: mass murderers, child-killers, serial rapists.
"The psychos and the weirdos," he calls them. "I don't talk to none of them creeps."
Abel's lawyers, who say his notorious reputation made him a convenient fall guy for the Tustin killing, are asking the California Supreme Court for a new trial.
At the heart of their case is something few condemned men possess: a signed confession by another man admitting to the murder.
On an overcast morning in January 1991, 26-year-old Armando Miller left the Sunwest Bank in Tustin with a bag containing $20,000 in cash. He'd just withdrawn the money for his family's nearby check-cashing business and was walking to his van.
A robber pumped a .22-caliber slug into his forehead and disappeared with the cash. A witness described the shooter as a sharp-featured, middle-aged man with a mustache and wearing a cuffed watchman's cap.
Abel, who roughly fit the description and sometimes wore a similar cap during holdups, had been paroled the year before on bank robbery charges and was drifting around Southern California.
He gambled heavily at blackjack and poker tables. He chased a cocaine and heroin habit. By his own admission, he was a man desperate for money.
Abel said he had been part of a planned armed robbery of some Colombian drug dealers in Northern California in early '91, a potential "humdinger" of a score that fell apart when an accomplice — who plotted the job — died of a heart attack.
"That's when I more or less went south," he said. "I ran out of money. In come the weapons, in come the robberies. It wasn't pretty, and it wasn't the plan of a mastermind or none of that."
He robbed banks in Hacienda Heights and Rowland Heights, a pizzeria in Lakewood, a pharmacy in San Pedro, a flower shop in Harbor City. He planned the jobs hastily, he said, giving himself an hour or so to stake out the target.
"I just go by feeling," he said. "Pretty much played it by ear. I guess I wasn't that good at it."
In October 1991, Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies tracked Abel to a Simi Valley parking lot. He was walking to his Toyota Tercel, where a loaded .22 waited under the seat. "If I had made it to the car, there would have been a shootout," Det. Steve Rubino recalled Abel telling him.
The string of robberies sent him to Folsom State Prison for a 44-year term.
Meanwhile, the Miller slaying moldered unsolved until 1995, when a tip led Tustin Det. Tom Tarpley to Lorraine Ripple, Abel's former crime partner, in state prison, where she was serving a 45-year robbery sentence.
Ripple told the detective Abel had confessed to the bank slaying, calling it an "easy score."
At trial two years later, prosecutors produced two witnesses who said they had seen the shooter briefly. One, a bank teller, expressed certainty that Abel was the culprit. The second, who worked near the bank, couldn't identify him in court, saying, "Too much time has gone by."
Prosecutor Lew Rosenblum described the robbery as "an inside job," telling jurors that Abel had been tipped to the score by a mortgage lender who knew the Miller family and their habit of withdrawing large sums of cash. The prosecutor showed a photo of Abel in a cap similar to the one seen on the shooter.
When Ripple took the stand, saying that Abel had confessed to her, the defense tried to portray her as a mentally unstable woman who was angry that Abel had spurned her romantic advances.
After his conviction, Abel's attorneys tried to spare him the death penalty but could offer jurors little that he'd ever contributed to the world. His record was ghastly: more than two dozen robbery convictions in Los Angeles and Orange counties since the 1960s.
The prosecutor, however, could draw from a deep pool of Abel's robbery victims who testified to their terror. One said she wet her pants when he put a gun to her head.
Jurors took about four hours to decide Abel should be put to death.